Laura Marx Fitzgerald never considered herself a writer.
“I had never written a book before,” she said. “I don’t have an M.F.A. — even as a kid I had never wanted to write a novel. I don’t even keep a journal.”
But with a Harvard University degree in art history and 17 years of living in Brooklyn under her belt, Marx Fitzgerald used her passions and her experience to create Theodora Tenpenny, a 13-year-old girl living in New York City, who finds a Raphael painting hidden in her home by her late grandfather.
This week, the Young Readers program follows Theo and her unlikely band of friends in discovering the societal importance of art in Marx Fitzgerald’s book, Under the Egg.
The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Young Readers program will take place at 4:15 p.m. today in the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall Ballroom. It will give participants the chance to uncover secrets of the art world with Don Kimes, artistic director of the Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution.
Matt Ewalt, associate director of education and youth services, said bringing in Kimes to speak on the intersection of art and politics, along with mysteries within art, is exciting.
“Don will be uncovering the secrets of the art world — mysteries behind paintings themselves, mysteries that exist within the paintings — just as Theo did when she spilled the rubbing alcohol,” Ewalt said. “I’m thrilled to have him participating in our program.”
Under the Egg details Theo’s process of accidentally discovering one of Raphael’s works in her home, which was hidden by a painting of an egg her grandfather created. She traipses throughout the city with a crew of helpers to discover how her deceased grandfather really came to have the painting in his possession, and what she needs to do with it.
“This was one of the first books we chose for this summer. It was a clear fit in terms of uncovering the politics behind art,” Ewalt said. “It’s an incredibly fun story, and it taps into the expertise Laura Marx Fitzgerald has in art history — she’s able to show that knowledge in a successful way.”
A lot of Marx Fitzgerald’s inspiration came from other middle-grade novels: when she was too exhausted for adult literature, she dove back into the Little House on the Prairie series for her own reading pleasure.
“I started thinking about what would Laura Ingalls Wilder look like if she was living in New York City today?” Marx Fitzgerald said. “That’s kind of where Theo was born from.”
Most of the novel follows factual information, Marx Fitzgerald said. Plot points regarding the painting being traded for a life, Raphael’s secret love and using X-ray machines to see what lies beneath a painting’s top layer are all based in fact.
“I think the book reflects a lot of the things that I struggle with, which is at the very, very heart is: ‘Is art important?’ and, ‘Does it have value?’ ” Marx Fitzgerald said. “I think the question I had throughout is ‘What is the value of art?’ Is something important because of the story it tells? Is it important because of the name that’s attached to it? Is it important because it’s beautiful and we want to have beauty in our lives? Is it not important?”
Reflecting on the connection between art, politics, value and human appreciation became the basis for Under the Egg and the reason why Marx Fitzgerald is working on her second book, The Gallery.
“I just read voraciously, from a young age, and I just read what I loved. And I think the more you read, the more widely you read and the more you challenge yourself with what you read, I think you soak in great writing,” Marx Fitzgerald said. “ I think the key to becoming a writer is just knowing what you love and what you want to write.”